Boldly going and gone

>> Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today, people landed on the moon. The next day--forty years ago, tomorrow--Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the lunar module, The Eagle, and took a little stroll. It was probably a day after that--forty years ago, Wednesday--that some paranoid asstard began wheeling his arms around and screaming, "Fake! Fake!" but to hell with that guy.

I wasn't around at the time, so I can't regale you with tales of sitting next to the flickering black-and-white hearth and breathlessly watching the events of 1.28 seconds in the past. When I was a wee little kid, though, I wanted to be an astronaut (not that unusual a childhood fantasy, I know), and so I was fascinated with all of it six or seven years in the past. I had an Apollo 11 record, I recall, that reproduced the audio feed and had some cheesy tribute music to go with it, light jazz instrumentals, that kind of thing, and I played the tracks that were just the Apollo 11 audio 'til you could see daylight through the vinyl. (Okay, that last part's exaggeration, but you get the gist.)

It was an epic thing, humans boldly going where no one had gone before. And at the time it still seemed that humans would keep boldly going--the idea of moonbases and space stations didn't seem that far-fetched if you were a naïve little tyke in the mid-'70s, oblivious to the realities of politics and budgets and such. Heck, I think adults probably fell for it, too: I mean, consider the 1968 classic, 2001. Eight years later, you sort of have to shake your head at how far off some of the movie ended up--no moon bases, no bigass wheels in the sky, no Pan Am--but at the time (a year before Apollo 11) the things Messrs. Clarke and Kubrick threw up on the screen had to be pretty straightforward linear extrapolations; land a man on the moon circa 1969 and surely you can have a permanent station there in thirty-two years, hell, that's about how long it took to go from a crude biplane made from bicycle parts to the Heinkel He 178(thirty-six years, to be exact), at which point we were well into the age of flight in general, trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, trans-Arctic, you name it.

If we were in space for the right reasons, the epic reasons, I think we'd have all the awesome stuff. But we weren't, not really. I hate to take some of the sparkle away, but let's face it: we were mostly on the moon not as a species achieving its destiny as we were there as Americans telling the Soviets to eat it. I'm honestly not trying to piss on the party--the lunar landing was a human pinnacle despite some of the baser motivations; no, it's that the baser motives are (I think) a big part of the reason we haven't had a parade for the returning Discovery astronauts back from their Jupiter rendezvous--once we'd rubbed the Soviet Union's face in it, there really wasn't a good reason to spend gazillions on going back again and again, and we ended up scaling back the plans for a permanent space station until all that was left was a delivery vehicle with no real mission and a disturbing tendency to explode. The Space Shuttle is, sort of ironically, kind of an example of why I'm not sure we physically belong in space.

See, we didn't exactly follow the linear projection Kubrick and Clarke sketched out; we got ourselves into politics and budgets and all that, and we never really had all that good a reason to go in the first place, and so we didn't make any sort of straight progression from those early unmanned Apollo flights that were in progress while 2001 was being made to Pan American spaceplanes taking bureaucrats up on routine business trips into the sky. And I guess where I'm going with this is that while my heart is with all the people who want to finally go back to the moon and to Mars for the right reasons, for the epic human adventure and the romance of discovery, my brain keeps telling me that we've set ourselves too far back to really justify the expense and risk to human life.

One of the funny things about the way the manned space program got sidetracked into a sort of oblivion is that various agencies never gave up exploring the universe and boldly going where no one had gone before and all that. But they didn't send people to do it--people who need to cart their food and water and precious air, people who can die of up to about a dozen different things at once if abruptly exposed to the intensely hostile environments of deep space or the lunar or Martian landscapes. We have these doughty explorers with names like Voyager, Ulysses and Cassini, Spirit and Opportunity, and they're doing good science and witnessing exotic vistas for us, and bless 'em but if they all died tomorrow the grief would be fleeting because we can build more.

I was thinking about this last bit this morning while listening to Buzz Aldrin for a few minutes on NPR. He was talking about getting a critical mass of humans onto Mars, and made the point that the people who got off the Mayflower didn't sit around waiting for the return ship to take them back, they were there to stay and live, and it's a good point as far as it goes. Buzz Aldrin is a hell of a guy, and if I disagree with him, which I sort of do, it's a disagreement filled with respect and admiration, and even envy for what he's seen and done. I agree with him that it would be neat to have humans living on Mars, there to stay and hopefully prosper. It would certainly give the species a shot if we Earthbound humans manage to wipe ourselves out or get creamed by a celestial event like the rock that beaned the dinosaurs but good sixty-five million years ago. The problem is that I think the comparison to the Puritans falls through when you consider that all the ways they could have died en route or upon arrival would have been individual, slow, and not inevitable, with the exception of their ship sinking in bad weather at a particularly inopportune place (and bear in mind there are places the Mayflower could have sunk with a decent probability of survivors washing up on one shore or another). A gasket blows at Mars landing and pfft, literally pfft, there goes everyone in a puff of sweet, sweet air.

For the money and trouble we'd spend trying to keep them from suffocating on vacuum or their own waste gas, or starving or dying of thirst or from exotic cancers caused by insufficient radiation shielding--for all that, how many 'bots could we scatter through the solar system and eventually the galaxy? I'm not immune to the romance of human feet kicking up the dirt of an alien place, but I also have to wonder why the seeds we scatter shouldn't be made of metal and silicon? We could be boldly going not merely where no one has gone but where no one could go, not if they were human-sized and human-shaped and needed to breathe and eat and drink and find something to do with their piss and shit.

A common objection to this line is that humans on-site can respond and react to events more quickly. This is true at the moment, let's concede; the time-delay in a round-trip radio signal to Pluto, at its very closest, is around ten hours. We could exchange news with our little friend twice-a-day, basically, and if something happens in the meantime who would know? The bitch is, of course, that the same thing would be true if it was some guy out there instead of a robot. If we put people on Mars, there will be around a three-minute delay in each direction, more than enough time to listen to a perfect pop song. But, more significantly, I think we're on a better track when it comes to smart machines than reliable manned space travel; I don't know if we'll ever create an AI or if true AI is even possible, but we are making strides every day in building software that can react to changes in the environment and make and respond to predictions with surprising accuracy. Our 'bots are going to take increasingly better care of themselves with less intervention from us.

I don't know. Like I said, my heart wants to go. But my head says there's no need to do it person.


15 comments:

Janiece Murphy Monday, July 20, 2009 at 1:47:00 PM EDT  

...my brain keeps telling me that we've set ourselves too far back to really justify the expense and risk to human life.

The expense part I may give you - the ROI on humans living on other worlds is unknown. But the risk to human life? I'm okay with that. It's not up to me to decide if the risk to an astronaut's life is too great, other than to measure the risk associated with mission success. Explorers have always known the risks associated with their professions, and they choose to take them anyway. That's part of what makes them explorers.

So while a case may be made that robotic exploration of space is more practical, or has better TCO or ROI, I don't think the "risk" to human life should be a factor, provided we're sending highly trained volunteers.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Monday, July 20, 2009 at 4:06:00 PM EDT  

Don't take this the wrong way, I am not trying to advocate shoddy work and cheapened life, but frankly what is wrong with the space program is that we are too scared of people dying in space.

Let's face it -- lots of things are dangerous. The number of explorers and test pilots and immigrants who died is tremendous. But let there be an accident in space, and we shut the whole program down for a couple of years. And after the last time, fail to rebuild the fleet.

Just sayin'.

Dr. Phil

MWT Monday, July 20, 2009 at 4:44:00 PM EDT  

I think it'd help if there was somewhere for humans to go. Someone somewhere was saying a while ago - if you wouldn't want to live in the most inhospitable places on Earth (say, an Arctic oil platform), why would you want to live on Mars?

In the meantime, until we actually find somewhere to set up camp, I'm all for continuing to send out the unmanned probes. I've always been a big fan of the science that comes back from those.

Eric Monday, July 20, 2009 at 9:18:00 PM EDT  

While I recognize that there's an argument that volunteers are "asking for it" in some sense, I think there's a responsibility that falls upon the people who are sending them, if they're being sent.

That's why I'm a bigger fan of private manned spaceflight than public--the people who are paying for it are sending themselves, not their proxies, and to some extent are only responsible to themselves (I suppose you can complicate things when you point out their responsibility to their employees, but oh well). This is another example of where the Mayflower comparison falls short, I think--the Puritans weren't agents of the King, they were refugees who obtained a charter for a colony and chartered a boat; the King had no more obligation to them on one shore than he had on the other, really.

I'm responsible for the astronauts on the current Space Shuttle mission, at least to a roughtly 1/304,059,724 share, much as I'm responsible for people serving closer to home. The fact they might be volunteering to go to space (or to Afghanistan) doesn't really change my moral obligation to them--which includes an obligation to spare them harm, if I can. That's no slight to anyone's bravery or willingness to sacrifice themselves, it's simply a fact of being a member of a culture that divides its labors and values the lives of its members.

Jim Wright Monday, July 20, 2009 at 10:18:00 PM EDT  

You and I have discussed this before, and comparing this post to mine today, well let's just say that I understand what you're saying intellectually, Eric, but I disagree emotionally.

I don't believe that exploration for the sake of science is enough. Little robots don't inspire, don't make us dream. I want to go and see what's over the next horizon, and die along the way if that's my destiny (not that I wouldn't most strenuously resist such a fate, mind you). I'm reminded of Dr. Phil's short story in Writers of the Future, The Man in the Moon - that, exactly that.

Eric Monday, July 20, 2009 at 10:36:00 PM EDT  

Jim, I think we mostly agree emotionally, but I will disagree about this in particular: whether little robots make us dream. As someone who was a kid eagerly thumbing through National Geographic's Voyager issues--with all those spectacular photographs of the Jovian and Saturnian moons--the little robots filled my dreams the way posters and maps of the Voyager missions filled a wall of my bedroom. And before that, Viking's photos of the Martian landscape haunted me.

So, yeah, little robots can fill our dreams, and in some ways I think they actually can do it more than people can, ironically enough: robots can set foot in places humans will never live and may never be capable of going (e.g. Jupiter's lower atmosphere may never be directly accessible to anyone; yet Clarke, for instance, wrote at least one improbable story about a traveller through the Jovian skies that was influenced by Voyager data and images).

In a way there's futher irony in the way we disagree: I, too, want to go over that horizon. But I'm willing to let a robot do it for me--in part because I'm not going to leave this world, and an astronaut may or may not be able to vicariously do it by 2060 if I'm still around (I would be 88 if I'm not dead), but a probe might plausibly do it in ten or twenty years, and while I have a very reasonable likelihood of being able to look at the picture and imagine I'm looking through my own eyes and not a distant lens....

Janiece Murphy Monday, July 20, 2009 at 10:51:00 PM EDT  

I'm inspired by the MERs, I have to admit. The little explorers that could, so to speak.

But at some point our responsibility to ensure our astronauts are reasonably safe moves over into obsessive risk aversion. Space is an inhospitable place, to be sure, but that doesn't mean there's no value in sending people up there to do what needs to be done. Astronauts, like members of the Armed Forces, know their lives may be forfeit. It's part of the gig, and (as Jim notes) they surely would prefer a better outcome, they're willing to take the risk for the reward.

I find that inspiring, and see my responsibility to them as one of enablement, rather than one of saving them from themselves.

Jim Wright Monday, July 20, 2009 at 11:17:00 PM EDT  

Well, again, I agree with you intellectually, but I want to go.

I see little point in sending the probes if we're not going to go.

Oh sure, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worth doing and the more we know about the universe the better.

But, I want to go. I've always wanted to go. I'm willing to risk my life to do it, even if the odds are only 50/50.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:20:00 AM EDT  

I wonder if much of our risk aversion comes down to the Challenger disaster?

I don't mean the simple loss of the ship and crew, but the fact that we were launching a civilian into space--a teacher--and so a higher than normal number of young children were watching. We'd had many flights into space already, so they children were not aware of any risk associated with the launch the way earlier generations were of earlier flights.

It's one thing for parents to decide for themselves whether or not to allow their children to watch a potentially dangerous flight; something else entirely if a school decides on the watching, and does not make the children aware of the possible risk.

I think the reaction of those children 25 years ago may have a great deal to do with current risk aversion.

Not to say I agree with the risk aversion--I don't. Astronauts know the risks they are taking, and they take those risks voluntarily and willingly.

Eric Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 9:37:00 AM EDT  

There's no doubt that anything worth doing involves risk. But anything worth doing is also worth doing well, and this is where I feel manned efforts are likely to be limited. I remain unconvinced that there's anything people can do now that robots can't do better.

That's not to say humans should never go. With better technology and a commitment to settle, if there's a good reason to settle (other than "because it's there," which, sorry JFK, is a lousy reason to do something), we settle.

One of the things I don't quite see being addressed is why humans should go and go now. I mean, I do see reasons: "because it's there," "because I want to go," "because it inspires"; but are any of these reasons worth spending billions and ordering people to their possible deaths.

And yes, I understand there are many willing to go--myself included. But my responsibility as a citizen doesn't stop there. Now, if someone wants to do it on their own tab, absolving me of participation, that's one thing--like I said, private spaceflight is a separate matter. But if we're engaging in a national civic project, voluntariness isn't the end of the conversation. I send a volunteer to his death, I'm a participant in that death regardless of whether he knew the risks or the actual cause. Now, if that death was necessary or unavoidable, that's one thing; but if it was unnecessary or avoidable--that's a terrible level of culpability I can do without.

So, hell yeah, I'm risk-adverse. Not to all risks, just to bad ones with no margin.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 9:50:00 AM EDT  

other than "because it's there," which, sorry JFK, is a lousy reason to do something

Um... History is full of men and women going places "because they were there." Everest, the bottom of the ocean, the New World... Exploration and experimentation for the sake of themselves are behind millenia of scientific progress.

And in making that progress, we make discoveries that allow us to advance civilization in untold and uncounted ways.

Research with a goal in mind is all good and well, and it does have its place, but the great discoveries of the past have always come from people who went just to see what was over the next horizon, be that literally (or as in the case of much scientific discovery) metaphorically.

Experimentation for the sake of itself is how we learn as children, and I deeply believe it is how we continue to learn as adults.

We can learn from reading books and watching machines and others, but you truly and profoundly learn something only by doing it yourself.

If there is risk to that action, so be it. But the rewards are more than worth the risks.

Eric Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:13:00 AM EDT  

"Because it's there" remains a lousy reason to do anything, even if it's sometimes produced good results. I mean, it sounds kinda nifty when you're talking about climbing Everest, but it's pretty mindless when you're talking about picking a scab.

I think there's a difference between doing something to see what happens or to see what's over there. Because it's there is no different, really, from because we can, and because we can should always raise the related question of whether we should. The ability to do something doesn't mean you ought to.

Eric Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:55:00 AM EDT  

Aha! Now this is a reason:

...NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.


-Tom Wolfe, "One Giant Leap to Nowhere"

The whole piece is worth a read.

Nathan Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 12:27:00 PM EDT  

Before I say anything, please bear in mind that I also want to go. And Eric's last bit (about WvB) is compelling to people like me but I doubt the average American is suitably moved by the concept of the Sun "going out" anytime soon enough to make a difference.

However, I think it's worth remembering that all human exploration has been driven by reasons other than a pursuit of knowledge. Empires wanted room to expand. They wanted to conquer "barbarians". They wanted to convert heathens. They wanted shorter routes to the people they traded with. They wanted riches that weren't available in their own territory.

The race to the moon was no less driven by altruism or pure science. It was primarily a military operation intended to provide us with the high ground against the Soviets.

That doesn't make it any less worthwhile, but it makes clear that you need to provide a compelling motive if you want Americans to foot the bill (and the risk) to have humans go further into space.

I'm fairly sure that we won't be doing a whole lot more manned space-flight until we discover another habitable (or semi-habitable) planet in another system. That will provide the impetus to spend and risk for the sake of getting there. And in the process, other planets in our own system will get colonized, if for nothing else, a closer jumping-off point.

Sorry if that sounds depressing to anyone, but it's my take on the subject.

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